Keswick Film Club - Reviews - A Small Act

Reviews - A Small Act

A Small Act

Reviewed By John Stakes

A Small Act
A Small Act
Imagine this. Sometime over Yuletide you decide to respond to one of the many appeals which wing their heartfelt way through your letterbox as the festive season approaches. This one earnestly requests you to give as little as £10 per month to sponsor a Kenyan pupil through secondary school. You feel moved to do this because you learn that all secondary education in Kenya is fee paying (only primary education is cost free) and the impoverished poor simply cannot pay. And anyway you can readily afford it. Having agreed to direct debit payment you settle back and quickly forget all about your modest act of altruism.

Hilde Back, a German Jew living in Sweden from the outbreak of WW2, was moved to sponsor Chris Mburu in precisely this way only to be uniquely reminded years later of her modest gift of priceless education when the object of her benevolence seeks her out to thank her. Hilde’s income had been limited however but she had been additionally motivated by the fact that when she had been living in Germany Jews had been denied private education from 1938.

Young Chris, a gifted pupil, had not only completed his secondary education, but continued through scholarships to go on and become a Harvard law graduate and a highly talented UN Human Rights lawyer.

University of Nairobi graduate Jennifer Arnold’s documentary “A Small Act” screened last Sunday to close the 2011 autumn season chronicles Mburu’s search for his benefactor and the later establishment by him of a scholarship programme in Hilde’s name to fund pupils similarly placed.

Arnold, the director, writer and co-producer, was almost too late because by the time she learned of Mburu’s search, he had already found Hilde! Fortunately the director located a video-tape of that historic meeting but the quality was so poor that it could not be used. Fortunately again, Mburu had been invited to attend a birthday party at Hilde’s home and Arnold was allowed to film their second meeting. Whilst Hilde was happy to co-operate, now into her eighties, she insisted that the cameras were not to be deployed intrusively.

Arnold’s crew then followed the fortunes of three pupils Kimani, Ruth and Caroline as they competed to determine their eligibility for the programme. Unfortunately, none of them achieved the predetermined threshold score of 380 points (and did not the tests seem harsh for primary school pupils?). Mburu decided exceptionally, to lower the threshold to allow his annual quota of 10 pupils to qualify, but only Kimani was accepted of the three.

In its eighty eight minutes running time Arnold’s modest documentary film encapsulated the true spirit and essence of selfless giving generally. At the film’s heart lies the message “a single gesture opens up limitless possibilities”. But it only too clearly also showed the importance of and pressure generated by the scheme which consigned those pupils who failed to make the grade to their otherwise impoverished future.

Arnold’s film career began when, after obtaining a degree in African History, she returned to UCLA to major in Film Studies, and went on to make her first feature, the 1999 indi-short “Maid of Honor” (not to be confused with the Jennifer Lopez film of the same name). She later co-directed with Ethan Cohen and became established as a co-producer in the second largest premium cable network in the USA, HBO. Her documentaries deal mainly with women’s issues so “A Small Act” is somewhat of a departure for her but is easily her most successful work as it has featured in several Film Festivals around America and Western Europe and was a 2010 “Emmy” Award nominee.

One of the obvious consequences of scholarships such as that subscribed to by Hilde and set up by Mburu is that there will inevitably be huge numbers of children who will never benefit from them. But as such children are no worse off after than they were before, this should not detract from the value of the opportunity these schemes provide...and the importance and benefits of education generally particularly in deprived countries.

...and who knows what leading by example can lead to. Contained in the credits sequence of Arnold’s film was the revelation that the production crew were so moved by their own experiences in documenting the children’s determination to self improve against huge odds that they decided to sponsor runners-up Ruth and Caroline from their own pockets!

...and so far Mburu’s funding has raised over $750,000. So, all’s well that ends well!

Happy Christmas to all patrons!

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